That Sir Thomas
Beecham does not have a strong reputation as a Wagnerian is
probably due to the vagaries of recording. But his pre-war performances
of Wagner operas were legendary. During the post-war period
he seems to have undertaken a single Wagner production, the
famous 1951 Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden.
a certain extent this post-war falling off is a result of the
changes to the musical establishment. It was no longer possible
for Sir Thomas to present opera with the degree of control that
he had during his pre-war seasons at Covent Garden. He had to
negotiate with the management there and was evidently a decidedly
skittish person to deal with.
Thomas’s post-war preoccupations were centred in the orchestral
arena and from this period we have a selection of bleeding chunks
of Wagner. But, interesting as they are, bleeding chunks do
not completely make a reputation for Wagnerian performances.
For that we must turn to the surviving fragments of Beecham
recorded live. Of the pre-war performances there is a complete
Tristan und Isolde the re-issue of which by EMI was fatally
confused with a Fritz Reiner performance from the same period.
Parts of Beecham’s Götterdämmerung survive, recorded
in 1936. The surviving fragments - end of Act 1 and Act 2 -
have appeared on disc. If you are keen, you can also acquire
rather hazy off-air transcriptions of the 1951 Meistersinger.
performances can give some idea of the magnificence of Beecham’s
Wagner performances, his control of detail and of large-scale
paragraphs. His performances are notably fleet and flexible.
to listen with a satisfactory degree of reproduction quality
then we must turn to the bleeding chunks. On this disc, we have
the first authorised issue of recordings made from concerts
that Sir Thomas gave at the Royal Festival Hall and from a BBC
radio session, with Kirsten Flagstad as the soprano.
made quite a number of appearances with Beecham during the pre-war
period. He was one of the small band of conductors for whom
she had great respect and with whom she got on well.
she has recorded the Wesendonck Lieder and the Liebestod.
Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder owe their popularity to their
sheer portability, compared to the majority of his repertoire,
and their links to Tristan. The recording was made in
1952, a year before Flagstad’s final London appearance. She
was 57 at the time and it is amazing how much of that magnificent
voice survives. The sound is rather recessed and Flagstad’s
passionate, gleaming tone is apt to sound a little steely. The
voice retains focus and flexibility, though the top is thinner
than ideal and there is the odd moment of hardness of tone.
In “Stehe Still” there are some profoundly still moments of
calm along with hints of waywardness at the top, but even so
she remains powerfully communicative and very exciting. The
orchestral opening of “Im Treibhaus” truly invokes Tristan
and Beecham and his orchestra respond beautifully. Flagstad
matches this opening in an ideal manner - her vocalisation is
firm and shapely with a gleaming top. Again there are hints
of over-steely tone and ideally I would have liked more warmth
in the voice. But even so, there are few sopranos who can match
this sort of tone in Wagner. In “Schmerzen” she combines power
with cleanliness of attack. The result is so fine that it seems
churlish to bring up the issue of the lack of warmth in the
voice. Finally, in “Traume” she matches perfectly Beecham’s
wonderfully misterioso opening.
Prelude and Liebestod have a less than ideal boxy sound.
Beecham’s flexibility and onward propulsion are ideal here.
This is a relatively fleet performance, but it is not driven;
the music ebbs and flows as it must. Flagstad matches Beecham;
again her gleaming tone hints at steel. But more worryingly
there are slight instabilities of tuning, though these are forgivable
in a live performance. I enjoyed this performance but frankly
I would prefer to listen to their live pre-war recording, with
a younger Flagstad and the sheer drama of a complete performance
addition to these, we have two overtures. That of The Flying
Dutchman gets the disc off to a rousing and exciting start,
full of passion and drama, dragging us along bodily. I was desperately
keen to learn how the opera proceeded, surely the sign of a
good overture. In the prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin,
the lovely string tone is just discernible, ravishing even through
the hiss. It made me regret that they could not have found a
tenor to do Lohengrin’s two great solos with Beecham.
a make-weight we also get a 10 minute recording, made in 1949
of Kirsten Flagstad talking about singing Wagner. This is 10
minutes of down-to-earth practicality which should be on every
young singer’s library shelves.
disc is not ideal, but SOMM are to be congratulated on the way
that they have cleaned up these transfers. They give us, in the
best possible condition, some of Sir Thomas Beecham’s last Wagner
see also Review
by Jonathan Woolf
OF THE MONTH